The Buffalo Sabres are in the midst of one of the most miserable stretches in recent NHL history, so there aren’t many reasons for fans to be excited as the team plays out the stretch of another lost season. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t storylines to keep an eye on.
General manager Kevyn Adams is expected to be a very busy man at the trade deadline, and a lineup that has already been upended by injuries, poor play, and COVID-19 could see even more turnover in the weeks to come. Some players will be looking to boost their value for interested teams, while others will try to show that they deserve to be a part of Buffalo’s future.
These are some of the most intriguing names to keep an eye on as the Sabres enter the second half of the 2020-21 season.
Aside from Jack Eichel, perhaps no Sabre has been scrutinized more than the former 40-goal scorer this season. From being made a healthy scratch three times to career-worst numbers across the board (his three goals and four points in 27 games are on pace for nine goals and 12 points over an 82-game season), it’s been a season from hell for Buffalo’s $72 million man.
But there have been promising signs in recent games: Skinner was positively buzzing around the ice in Monday’s loss to the New York Rangers, scoring one goal and getting robbed on a couple of other prime chances. Despite his porous counting numbers, he’s been driving play with an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 55.8 per Natural Stat Trick. He also seems to have found chemistry on a line with Casey Mittelstadt and Curtis Lazar.
For Skinner, the question down the stretch should be if it was former head coach Ralph Krueger who held him back or just rotten luck. Either way, he needs to start earning at least some of that massive contract.
The Sabres’ 2019 first-round pick has already become a fan favorite for his aggressive brand style and willingness to drop the gloves. The numbers don’t quite match up to the hype (six points in 21 games, a 43.4 xGF%), but for the most part, Cozens hasn’t looked out of place in the NHL as a rookie.
With the team expected to be sellers at the trade deadline, Cozens’ role will only increase. Unfortunately, the two players most likely to be shipped out — Taylor Hall and Eric Staal — have been two of Cozens’ most common linemates. It will be interesting to see who he ends up paired with if the two veterans do indeed leave Buffalo.
The more intriguing factor to keep an eye on is if Cozens, like so many others, is negatively impacted by the losing culture in Buffalo. It’s become hard to keep track of all the players who have either become worse with the Sabres (Hall, Staal, Skinner) or have found greener pastures elsewhere (Ryan O’Reilly, Robin Lehner). The Sabres can’t afford to let a promising talent like Cozens join either list.
Early in the season, it looked like Ristolainen was poised for a breakthrough campaign. But then Jake McCabe got hurt, and Ristolainen missed seven games due to serious COVID-related symptoms, and it’s all been downhill since.
The numbers bear out how much Ristolainen has missed his old blue-line partner: according to MoneyPuck, the McCabe-Ristolainen duo had an xGF% of 56.8 in 10 games together; no other pairing Ristolainen has been a part of is above 46.
And the toll of relentless losing that we mentioned above? No one has felt that more than Ristolainen, who sports a career minus-160 rating in over 500 games as a Sabre.
The big Finn doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2021-22 season, but he has been the subject of trade rumours in the past, and perhaps no one on this team deserves a fresh start more than him.
Speaking of awful plus/minus numbers, Buffalo’s other defenseman named Rasmus ranks at the bottom of the league at minus-28 as of Wednesday. The rest of the bottom four? His teammates Sam Reinhart, Staal, and Hall.
That number is obviously not all on Dahlin, but it’s a good representation of how much the former first-overall pick has struggled in his third season that was supposed to be a breakout campaign. Some have attributed his struggles to being handcuffed by Krueger’s defense-first system that deprived Dahlin of the chance to join offensive rushes, which was part of what made him so special in his first two seasons.
Interim coach Don Granato ought to make a point of getting the team’s franchise defenseman more involved in the offense: Dahlin’s 0.37 points per game is almost half of what it was in 2019-20 (0.68).
While trade rumours have surrounded Eichel, Dahlin isn’t going anywhere, but he needs to start making good on his potential as a generational defenseman.
In a season filled with unrelenting bad news, the Sabres finally got some good news on Tuesday when their number one goalie returned to practice. It’s still unknown when Ullmark will see game action, but it can’t come too soon. After trading away Jonas Johansson and losing Carter Hutton to a potentially serious injury, the Sabres are down to Dustin Tokarski (who appeared in his first NHL game since 2016 on Monday) and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (likely to see his first NHL action soon).
How important is Ullmark to the Sabres’ success? They haven’t won a game since he was injured in late February. He has a .919 save percentage (SV%) for the season; Hutton, Johansson, and Tokarski have a combined SV% of .885.
It’s too late to turn the season around, but having Ullmark back in net will at the very least provide the Sabres with competent goaltending and give them a chance to actually win a few games.
He’s an unrestricted free agent after the season, but given how barren Buffalo’s goaltending situation is, plus his recent injury, it’s unlikely that the young Swede is traded. Instead, the Sabres will need to decide if he is a part of their future. Otherwise, it will likely be Luukkonen and a veteran free agent that end up manning the crease next season.
The Sabres find themselves in as bad a situation as any in their history. While there might not be much to play for in the standings, these players have plenty to prove in the second half of the season and are worth keeping your eye on.
Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Nick has a Bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University and a Master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. He interned at Little League International where he covered the Little League Baseball World Series. Nick then spent over three years as a newspaper sports reporter and editor at the Bradford Era in Bradford, PA and the Daily Freeman in Kingston, NY. He is currently living in Buffalo where he is still holding out hope for a Bills Super Bowl and/or Sabres Stanley Cup.